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The Take: GOP Comeback Limited by Demographics, Political Forces

The challenges facing the Republican Party as it rebuilds include changing demographics, such as the shrinking proportion of whites in the electorate.
The challenges facing the Republican Party as it rebuilds include changing demographics, such as the shrinking proportion of whites in the electorate. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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There was much attention paid to Obama's trouble winning the votes of white working-class voters. The bad news for Republicans is that these voters represent a declining share of the electorate.

Since 1988, that group's proportion of the national electorate has dropped by 15 percentage points. In Pennsylvania, Teixeira reported, it has declined by 25 percentage points. Teixeira reported that Obama actually won the votes of working-class whites ages 25 to 29; at this point, they appear more culturally liberal than their elders.

As the working-class vote shrinks, the college-educated vote increases, and Democrats are gaining a greater share of these voters. Democrats lost white college graduates by 20 percentage points in 1988 but by four points last November. That is another big reason they have gained strength in the suburbs.

Obama's strength among young voters was a staple of coverage throughout his bid for the White House, although as Keeter pointed out, he could have won in November without the votes of anyone younger than 30. But his margin was the biggest in several decades and that alone should worry Republicans.

Obama may appeal to younger voters, but their shift toward the Democrats predates his candidacy. "This really is not Obama," Keeter said. "Young voters were John Kerry's best age group. They were the Democratic candidates' best age group in the 2006 elections, and they were the best age group for other Democratic candidates in 2008."

Younger voters are more diverse demographically than older voters. In 2008, 62 percent were white, compared with 74 percent eight years earlier. Projections show young voters will become increasingly diverse. They are also less religious and more culturally liberal, two indicators of Democratic support.

GOP strategist Mike Murphy described this in Time magazine as a coming Republican ice age. Republicans will need a major shift to begin to reverse these trends. That could start if there is a backlash against Obama's governance -- and the president's agenda certainly will test the country's tolerance for a big dose of government. But Republicans will need to retool in other ways to make themselves more appealing to a changing population. That debate has barely begun.


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